The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert Mrs Barrett c.1905

This pastel shares the title of an oil painting by Sickert in which the sitter appears dressed as a coster girl. There is much speculation as to her identity, unrecorded by the artist other than her name. In this picture Mrs Barrett’s neatly coiffed hair, fur stole and pearl necklace imply a more affluent social standing, and are rendered in long streaks of dark colour tones. The distinctive iron bedstead which Sickert kept in his studio can be seen reflected in the square mirror behind her, indicating its setting to be 8 Fitzroy Street.
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
Mrs Barrett
c.1905
Pastel on board
540 x 711 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘Sickert’ top right
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1940
N05127

Entry

The identity of the woman in this pastel has been a subject of complex speculation. In Sickert’s oil titled Mrs Barrett 1906 (private collection),1 what could be the same model – albeit looking perhaps somewhat younger – appears dressed like a coster-girl, with a large, wide-brimmed hat. On a postcard to his friend Elizabeth Swinton, Sickert inscribed a drawing of its composition, ‘Thursday afternoon. New model.’ 1906 (private collection).2 Unfortunately, he does not mention the sitter’s name. In her 1960 Sickert catalogue, Lillian Browse wrote that Mrs Barrett was Sickert’s one-time charlady, but after the catalogue’s publication Mrs Barrett’s daughter-in-law contacted her with a photograph, informing her that Mrs Barrett had been a dressmaker.3 The oil once belonged to Robert Emmons, as did another pastel of the same sitter, which in his lifetime was titled Blackmail. Mrs Barrett 1905 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa).4 Seated in a chair, hand on chin, this is quite evidently the same sitter as in the Tate pastel, her hair parted and coiffed in exactly the same way. When Blackmail. Mrs Barrett was unframed, an old Bernheim label and another handwritten one gave the title as Popolana Veneziana, which can be translated as ‘Woman of the Venetian People’. This would seem to contradict the identification of the sitter as Mrs Barrett, unless she was Venetian.
Emmons knew Sickert only from 1927, when he enrolled in his art school at Highbury Place, Islington,5 long after any association Sickert would have had with Mrs Barrett. But as his biographer, in touch with many of Sickert’s circle as well as the artist himself, it is probable that he would have had some corroboration of the sitter’s name in the two works in his collection. In a letter to the Tate Gallery in 1958, Emmons confirmed that, ‘I always thought the sitter for Blackmail was Mrs Barrett’.6 As to Mrs Barrett’s profession, Emmons commented:
I don’t know whether Mrs Barrett was a charlady or not. I am glad you have that wonderful pastel ... I had a good portrait of her in oils, & she did not look like a char.7
An added complication is a letter from Mrs G.E. Brookes, widow of John Lawrence Rayner of the Eldar Gallery, in the Tate Catalogue file.8 She writes that the Tate pastel is almost certainly the same as that once known as The Russian Girl. According to her records this measured 21 x 27½ inches, was in pencil, chalk and wash, and was among the stock of Sickert’s work taken from the art dealer R.E.A. Wilson when her husband started the Eldar Gallery in around 1919. Most of these had been bought by Wilson directly from the artist. All this has led the art historian Wendy Baron to question whether, logically, the pastel might therefore show Elizabeth Swinton, who was born in St Petersburg, although was not actually Russian.9 But Swinton’s different bone structure and age make this identification unlikely, and if the pastel sitter is the same as in the oil Mrs Barrett, then Sickert’s postcard to Swinton about depicting a ‘new model’ would make this identification impossible.
The character of the sitter in the oil painting Mrs Barrett and the Tate pastel does seem markedly different. In the oil she has the look of a working class woman – a ‘woman of the people’ as the Bernheim label suggests. But in the pastel her fur stole or collar and pearl necklace seem to imply a figure of more affluent social standing. It is possible that Sickert was playing with just such emblematic connotations of class, identity and representation. Using his sitter like an actor on a stage, the identity that we think we perceive is based only on superficial pointers to her character and personality.
Walter Richard Sickert 'Self-Portrait: The Painter in his Studio' 1907
Fig.1
Walter Richard Sickert
Self-Portrait: The Painter in his Studio 1907
Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario. Gift of the Women’s Committee, 1970
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS
Photo © Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario
The pastel was made in Sickert’s rooms at 8 Fitzroy Street in London,10 and in the mirror is reflected the recognisable iron bedstead that he had there. Sitting on the dressing table in front of the mirror, and also reflected in it, is a sculpture cast. This is the ecorché flayed man that, when Sickert made the pastel, was attributed to Michelangelo. It recurs in Sickert’s self-portrait The Painter in his Studio 1907 (fig.1).11 This picture depicts the artist reflected in a mirror, flanked by three sculpture casts: a variant of the Knidian Venus; the flayed man; and Michelangelo’s Dying Slave (Musée du Louvre). While these casts were often found in artists’ studios around this time, the art historian Anna Gruetzner Robins suggests that Sickert may have been deliberately alluding to the classical inspiration shared by many modern French artists.12 Pierre Bonnard displayed a postcard of the same Venus in his studio and sourced antique Venuses for a group of female nude paintings, while the Dying Slave was a source of stimulation for Auguste Rodin. Like Sickert, Paul Cézanne owned a cast of the flayed man, and it appears in a number of his works, such as in the background of Still Life with Plaster Cupid 1895 (Courtauld Gallery, London),13 or in the numerous carefully drawn studies such as Ecorché and Interior with a Chair 1887–90 (Öffentlich Kunstsammlung Basel, Kupferstichkabinett).14 ‘Until his last day,’ Joachim Gasquet wrote, Cézanne ‘drew or painted Michelangelo’s écorché an hour every morning, from every angle, like a priest reading his breviary.’15 Evidently it was an important object for Cézanne, but whether Sickert was aware of this is unknown.
Walter Richard Sickert 'Self-Portrait: The Bust of Tom Sayers' 1913
Fig.2
Walter Richard Sickert
Self-Portrait: The Bust of Tom Sayers 1913
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS
Photo © Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Sickert seems to have enjoyed the pairing of real figures with sculpted or cast ones. In addition to The Painter in his Studio, it was a device he returned to in Self-Portrait: The Bust of Tom Sayers 1913 (fig.2),16 where he depicts himself reflected in an overmantel, in front of which stands a bust of the boxer Tom Sayers (1826–1865) on the mantelpiece. Sickert’s etching Cicely Hay, 1923 (The Large Plate)17 follows the precedent of Tate’s Mrs Barrett by having a china group of two embracing figures appear prominently next to the sitter’s head on a shelf or table behind. The embracing figures perhaps might represent the warm feelings Sickert held for Hay, but it seems unlikely the flayed man has the same purpose in Mrs Barrett. Not only is it less prominent, an object that is simply in the room, but it is difficult to grasp what such a pairing might mean. Nor does Sickert appear to have held strong feelings about Michelangelo, who is not mentioned once in all his writings on art.18
The subject and style of the pastel also positions itself alongside contemporary French art. The long streaks of colour with which it is drawn appear deliberately to recall the pastels of Edgar Degas, and also the intimacy of pictures by Bonnard.
The mirror in the background indicates that this might be the pastel exhibited at Bernheim-Jeune in 1907 and 1909 as Le Mirroir carré (The Square Mirror). Bernheim’s stated dimensions of 53 x 69 cm are close enough to make this a possibility.19

Robert Upstone
May 2009

Notes

1
Reproduced in Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.267 and Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1992 (52).
2
Reproduced in Baron 2006, no.267.1.
3
Lillian Browse, Sickert, London 1960, p.29; see Baron 2006, no.266.
4
Reproduced as Popolana Veneziana in Baron 2006, no.239 and Royal Academy 1992 (45).
5
Matthew Sturgis, Walter Sickert: A Life, London 2005, p.561.
6
Letter from Robert Emmons, 29 November 1958, Tate Catalogue file.
7
Letter from Robert Emmons, 27 November 1958, Tate Catalogue file.
8
7 December 1958, Tate Catalogue file.
9
See Royal Academy 1992 (45). Although Elizabeth Swinton was born in Russia, she was in fact English, not Russian, an assumption Sickert made when he first met her. See Sturgis 2005, p.347.
10
See Wendy Baron in Royal Academy 1992 (45).
11
Baron 2006, no.331 and Royal Academy 1992 (63).
12
See Anna Gruetzner Robins in Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870–1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2005, pp.169–71.
13
Lionello Venturi, Cézanne, son art – son oeuvre, Paris 1936, no.706; reproduced in Cézanne, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1995 (163).
14
Adrien Chappuis, The Drawings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalogue Raisonné, Greenwich, Connecticut 1973, no.980; reproduced in Tate Gallery 1995 (111).
15
Joachim Gasquet, Cézanne, Paris 1921, p.21; quoted in Tate Gallery 1995, p.396 n.26.
16
Baron 2006, no.408.
17
Reproduced in Ruth Bromberg, Walter Sickert Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London 2000, no.210.
18
See the index of Anna Gruetzner Robins (ed.), Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, Oxford 2000.
19
See Baron 2006, no.339.1.

How to cite

Robert Upstone, ‘Mrs Barrett c.1905 by Walter Richard Sickert’, catalogue entry, May 2009, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/walter-richard-sickert-mrs-barrett-r1139840, accessed 20 June 2019.